Good and Bad Teaching

To see how a course can be organized around a domain instead of around traditional subjects, let's take an example. Consider learning about wine. I chose this subject both because I happen to know something about it and because it is an adult topic. As such, it is only taught to people who volunteer to take a class, usually even paying money to attend.

Let's go to wine school. Not a real wine school, but a wine school where the instruction is like that found in the schools.

Such a school would start our instruction in wine by splitting our time into four class periods and handing out a text for each. One might be a geography text, teaching about where Burgundy was, and where the wine growing regions of the United States are; talking about Virginia and New York, and Texas wineries, for example. Next would be an agricultural text. It would teach about the various grapes, where which is grown and why, discussing soil conditions, climate issues, optimal grape picking times, and so on. The third would be a text about the wine making process, fermentation, storage, blending, and such would be included, as well as a discussion of the wine business, including who owns which chateaus and so on. The fourth would be a history text, answering such questions as: What kind of wine did the Romans drink? Who invented the cork stopper? How were issues of proper storage discovered? Why do the British prefer to drink Bordeaux? Which wine growing regions of France were there in Roman times? On schedule, regardless of what we were doing, the school would rotate us from geography to agriculture to process to history and back again.

After instruction in these various areas, we would begin testing. What was the best year for Bordeaux in the last 30 years and why? Who owns Chateau Margaux? When did Mouton-Rothschild achieve first growth status? What grapes are grown in Oregon and why? What was the first French-American joint venture in wine growing? Can you identify the Chateauneuf du Pape region of the Rhone valley on a map?

What is wrong with this picture? Nothing, I think. It is the way schools teach most subjects. Schools teach information that can be tested. How will they know if you have learned anything if they can't test you? Notice that no scriptlet (save those of memorization or reading) would really be involved at all in such a course. The goals of the student, which presumably had something to do with drinking wine rather than with the acquisition of facts, were ignored. In general, I don't think such a school would stay in business long. Students would vote with their feet and if students in school or training programs could vote with their feet in the analogous situations, they most certainly would.

The school that would stay in business would not involve lectures about wine. Teaching about wine means drinking wine, not memorizing facts about wine. Drinking wine with some help from someone who knows more than you do means you will learn something. Being able to compare one wine to another, having many different experiences from which to generalize, means being able to create new cases (a particularly great wine would be remembered, for example) and new generalizations (seeing a common property that all wines from a certain place or year had in contrast to others from different places or years, for example).

Over time, a learner becomes curious about an ever wider range of issues. Learning entails, among other things, knowing what questions to ask. This means collecting enough cases or scriptlets that one can begin to wonder about them, to seek out new cases and refinements on scriptlets so new knowledge can be acquired. It is only in this context that the acquisition of facts is of any interest at all. Only when facts are sought after by a student for reasons of satisfaction of curiosity will those facts be usefully acquired.

As I became an experienced wine drinker, I began to wonder about the details it involves. Now, I know about when Chateau Margaux changed hands. Why? Because the quality changed dramatically (down and then back up) the last two times that occurred, and I really like Chateau Margaux and need to know which years to avoid. I became curious enough to actually go visit the famous Chateau Margaux, but I would not have visited it if I hadn't liked the wine in the first place. A shrine isn't a shrine unless it means something to you. I know where Bordeaux is now because I had to find it on a map in order to get to Chateau Margaux. I drank Bordeaux for years without really knowing anymore about the region of Bordeaux than that it was in the southwest of France somewhere. All the new facts I learned would have been meaningless and easily forgotten had I simply been told them at the wrong time. The right time was when I wanted to know them, a time that could only have been determined by me and not a teacher.

Teachers hope that their students will develop a lifelong curiosity about what they teach. Teaching by subject matter, though, stifles curiosity. If we as educators want to grow students' interests, it helps if we start with things they care about in the first place. It helps even more if they can see directly how what they are learning furthers their goals.

Next Story Redesigning Courses

Outline Where am I in the content of the book?

Give Me Alternatives

What Led To This?

What Should Be Avoided

What Can Be Done?

Give Me Details

Give Me Background

Start Over Who Built Engines? Contact EFE Team ILS